In her first big test as General Motors’ chief executive, Mary Barra has taken a hands-on approach behind the scenes in directing the automaker’s response to ignition-switch problems that have been linked to 13 deaths. (Pool/Reuters)

Federal auto-safety regulators were under fire Monday for failing to act quickly on evidence that faulty ignition switches in some General Motors cars were killing the engine and preventing air bags from inflating in accidents, contributing to 13 deaths.

Consumer advocates — including Joan B. Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — called on NHTSA to investigate why it did not demand that GM recall affected models after learning as early as 2007 that an ignition defect could inadvertently stall a car, disabling its air bags.

“While GM bears complete responsibility for failing to recall these vehicles by 2005, when it knew what the defect was and how to fix it, NHTSA has responsibility for failing to order a recall by early 2007, when it knew what the effect was and how to fix it,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, wrote in a letter to NHTSA seeking an independent probe of the agency’s response.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said late Monday that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he chairs, will investigate whether GM or NHTSA missed “something that could have flagged these problems sooner. If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened.”

NHTSA officials defended the agency’s actions, saying they have long been concerned about the potential stalling problem. The agency launched probes of suspicious crashes caused by the faulty switches, but investigators struggled to pinpoint the exact cause of the accidents amid a fog of complaints and complications, including the introduction of a new type of air bag around the time of the earliest incidents.

“NHTSA receives and screens more than 40,000 consumer complaints each year and pursues investigations and recalls wherever our data justifies doing so,” the agency said in a statement. “As a data-driven organization, ­NHTSA is constantly looking for ways to improve our process so we can better identify serious safety defects in the nation’s vehicle fleet and ensure that those defects are remedied.”

GM on Monday named a former federal prosecutor to head its inquiry into why the automaker waited more than a decade to recall vehicles equipped with the problematic ignition switches, which now number more than 1.6 million.

Anton “Tony” Valukas, chairman of the law firm Jenner & Block, will work with GM’s general counsel, Michael Millikin, on the probe. In addition, attorneys from the law firm King & Spalding will help conduct the investigation into the chain of events leading up to GM’s announcement last month that the vehicles would be recalled.

GM chief executive Mary Barra said she has demanded an “unvarnished” picture of GM’s handling of the ignition problem.

The automaker, which has been enjoying a resurgence following its descent into bankruptcy in 2009, issued the recall last month to fix the faulty switches, which sometimes cause cars to turn themselves off, stalling the engine and shutting down electronic components, including air bags. The company has said that the problem is more likely to occur when cars go off the road or when the ignition switch is jostled by, for example, the driver’s knee or an overloaded key ring.

GM has linked the problem to 13 deaths, and consumer activists suspect the total could rise. The recall covers the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, and the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky and Chevrolet HHR.

As it draws pointed scrutiny for its response, NHTSA is conducting its own investigation. Last week, it issued an order to GM, demanding answers to 107 questions about what happened in the decade between the first indication that the switch was faulty and last month’s recall.

In what some agency officials called an unprecedented request, NHTSA wants the names of employees involved in investigating the problem. It also wants to know details about complaints GM received from owners, the names and correspondence of employees involved in the company’s attempts to fix the problem, and reasons why proposed design changes were not implemented in 2004 and 2005, soon after the problem first surfaced.

Among the first victims of the faulty switch was Amber Marie Rose, 16, a Southern Maryland girl who died in 2005. Rose was legally drunk, she was not wearing a seat belt and her Chevrolet Cobalt was going 69 mph in a 25-mph zone when the car crashed early one morning, according to an investigation of the accident.

Still, an investigator hired by Rose’s adoptive parents determined that her car’s ignition switch had gone into the “accessory” position during the accident, preventing her air bags from deploying. And Rose likely would have been saved by a functioning air bag, the investigator concluded, said Rose’s birth mother, Laura Christian.

In 2006, the automaker disclosed the problem to dealers in a technical-service bulletin that resulted in repairs to 474 cars. In 2007, a research team looking into the Rose crash informed federal safety regulators about the potential link between the defective ignition switches and the failure of air bags to deploy.

Another seven years would pass before last month’s recall.

“It is absolutely appalling,” Christian said in an interview Monday, “that it took so long for this recall to happen.”